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When Adolf Hitler paid his respects at the Vimy Ridge Memorial in 1940


Adolf Hitler


London (Ontario, Canada) Thursday, April 5, 2007

Hitler's visit still haunting

By Greg van Moorsel
City Editor

Photo: Adolf Hitler and Nazi brass tour Vimy in this 1940 propaganda photo, which The Free Press ran in 1948.

And see the June 10, 1940 issue of Facts in Review, a newsletter distributed in the United States by the German Library of Information in New York

RETRIEVED from history's dustbin, it's still a disturbing image all these 67 years later. There, smiling in the grainy photograph, is Adolf Hitler -- a phalanx of jack-booted Nazis at his side -- touring Canada's dramatic First World War memorial at Vimy Ridge.

Why one of history's monsters was even there, at a site built to honour 60,000 Canadian war dead, is one question.

Why the arresting June 1940 photograph was roundly published in Germany, yet shielded from most Canadians, is another.

How the image finally found its way into The London Free Press, three years after the Second World War, is another strand to the story of wartime propaganda and censorship.

The tie-in is Ron Laidlaw, then a young Free Press photographer, who scooped up the Hitler shot in a stack of photographs he found as the Allies chased Hitler's armies out of France.

Laidlaw, now 87, can't recall exactly where he got those photographs. He thinks it was while the unit he was following as an RCAF war photographer overran a German airfield between Paris and Brussels in 1944.

His real quarry that day, stumbling upon the airfield darkroom, was a prized Leica camera -- "a beauty," he recalls. But as he reached for it, he noticed "peanut bombs," nasty little explosives the fleeing Germans had scattered.

"You touch one of those things, you lose a toe," he says.

Instead, Laidlaw grabbed the cache of photographs without knowing what images it held.

Bigger stuff on his mind, he wasn't even offended when he finally saw the Vimy shot of Hitler and his leather-coated sidekicks -- "henchmen," The Free Press caption later read.

"I didn't make any judgments. I was more interested in staying alive," he notes.

"I probably didn't even know that was a war cemetery," Laidlaw says of the Vimy monument to Canada's First World War dead, including the 5,600 who fell at Vimy.

"And Hitler, well, he was just a guy we wanted to kill."

So, why was Hitler at Vimy? Why all the intrigue about the photograph of the notorious visitor?

Those questions won't be on the minds of the many Canadians Vimy-bound for Monday's 90th anniversary of that battle to salute those who fell fighting an earlier generation of Germans.

Canada's largest war monument -- two white limestone pillars towering 69 metres, or 10 storeys, over a hill in France -- has had a big facelift for the occasion.

But back in June 1940, only four years after King Edward VIII dedicated it, the site's fate was in doubt.

The Germans were conquering France and the British had retreated across the English Channel when a propaganda skirmish broke out over the memorial.

Even Mackenzie King, Canada's wartime prime minister, (right) was drawn into the fray.

Stoking public anger at home, Canadian newspapers reported the Germans had destroyed the monument.

But while the Germans went after many historic French sites, scrapping statues and rubbing out reminders of past defeats, Vimy was spared.

Hitler was even said to have admired the big Canadian landmark, imposing but with an elegant triumphal sweep.

To prove the allegations of destruction false, Hitler and his brass toured Vimy and the Nazi propaganda mill kicked in, cranking out their photographs.

One of the photographs, published in Germany, seethed anger in its caption, slamming the "English Minister of Lies" for claiming "the 'German barbarians' " had destroyed the site.

"Our photograph," it continued, "is one of the most striking picture documents for the shameless mendacity of the English propaganda. Meanwhile, Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King has repudiated the English lie."

Hitler never fought at Vimy, but served in the area as a German infantryman during the First World War. He was said to have a soft spot for the soldiers of the Great War.

What a villain he would become -- the world would soon learn about his Nazi death camps and other atrocities.

Still, destroying war memorials was something of a taboo, says Jonathan Vance, a war historian at the University of Western Ontario, whose grandfather fought at Vimy.

"I think there were kind of tacit orders that none of this stuff was to be touched," he says. "I think (Hitler) kind of believed, in some kind of perverse way, that whatever else the Nazis were doing, they shouldn't be destroying cemeteries and war monuments."

At the height of the Vimy war of words, Vance says, the British flew over the area to make sure the monument was OK.

In the end, the only damage done was the German capture of the civilian groundskeeper.

As for Laidlaw -- the news photographer-turned RCAF shutterbug who found the arresting image -- danger, thrills, even minor celebrity, followed him to war's end.

A 1944 Free Press story, headlined "Ex-Free Press photographer among first to enter Paris," told how Laidlaw sat "on the bonnet" of a car in an armed escort, photographing the Allies liberating Paris as hold-out German snipers fired.

Back home after the war, the award-winning photographer made a leap of faith by jumping to a career in television, then still in its infancy. He went on to become news director at CFPL-TV in London.

Still in London, Laidlaw says he's rediscovering his "first love" -- photography. Only now, "it's just a hobby."

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Reader James Blanchard reminds us on Friday, April 6, 2007:-

THE photo of Adolf Hitler's visit to the Vimy Ridge memorial was published on the first page of the June 10, 1940 issue of Facts in Review, a newsletter distributed in the United States by the German Library of Information in New York. The accompanying story:

'On June 1, the cable wires to Canada burned with stories of the destruction of Canada's Memorial to her Great War dead at Vimy Ridge. Eyewitnesses recounted first person stories of the "obviously deliberate attack" by German dive bombers on the beautiful monument. As though "eyewitness" stories were not sufficient to prove the vandalism of the German Air Force, unidentified fragments of stone, alleged to be pieces of the monument were exhibited by British soldiers who had picked them up as "souvenirs" of the once-beautiful structure.

It was a beautifully built-up tale! The British Minister of Information had excelled himself. Leaders in Canadian public life spared no invective in damning the perpetrators of a deed, unconfirmed and unsubstantiated save for a few handfuls of stone splinters. Throughout the width and breadth of Canada a fury of hatred was whipped up overnight, which was the more gratifying since the enthusiasm of the Canadian people for Britain's war had so far failed to reach the intensity desired in London.

The German news agency, DNB, denied the alleged bombing of the memorial which German military authorities knew to be intact. The story was assessed at its true value, nemely, an attempt to stir up the hatred of the Canadian public.

It was not, however, until on June 5, American newspapers published a radiophotograph, reproduced on the cover page of this issue, showing Chancellor Hitler and his staff against a background formed by the familiar and easily recognizable outlines of Canada's war memorial, reputedly destroyed but a few days before, that the full mendacity of the British reports was proven.'

James Blanchard

on this website

Ealing collection, London | Just a taste: The Berghof copy of Mein Kampf weighs forty pounds and could stop a London bus
Erster Atombunker oder unterirdisches Archiv: Neue Funde in Hitlers Obersalzberg
Nazis' Alpine retreat to be converted into luxury hotel
The Berghof. Hitler's Mountain home, in the Bavarian Alps, profiled by Homes & Gardens, Nov 1938
For sale: Hitler's Berlin bunker (June 2001) | Jewish Claims Conference may get Hitler bunker
 Excellent photographs of Hitler's Obersalzberg home and headquarters the Berghof from start to finish 

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